VO2 Max: How to Live Longer, Happier, and Get in the Best Shape of Your Life
And why it's important for everyone, not just athletes
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At the beginning of 2023, I wrote down a single sentence at the top of my whiteboard that said:
“The year I got in the best shape of my life.”
Up to that point, I was a fitness pretender. I followed the bro-science code of lifting 4 to 5 days a week and largely ignored cardio. This cursed me with an athletic-looking body that was repeatedly put to shame after a measly flight or two of stairs.
I decided to stop fucking around and start taking my fitness more seriously, mostly due to:
Unlucky genetics and rising cholesterol levels
The birth of my son and wanting to live as long as possible
A handful of “old man moments” where my athletic prowess had clearly deteriorated
Bro-science wasn’t working, so I figured I should start following some actual science. I listened to this podcast from Andrew Huberman with Peter Attia and heard them talk about the term ‘VO2 Max’ pretty often.
By the end of their conversation, I was convinced of two things:
I was definitely not in shape
Improving my VO2 Max was the key to living to be 100 (not an exaggeration)
Let’s dive in.
What Is VO2 Max?
Your VO2 Max is an indicator of your overall cardiorespiratory fitness. It refers to the maximum rate of oxygen consumption attainable during physical exertion*.
V = volume | O2 = oxygen | Max = maximum
VO2 Max is basically how fast your muscles extract the oxygen from your blood and use it to generate energy. The higher your VO2 Max, the higher your cardiorespiratory fitness, and the more “in-shape” you are.
Measuring it is a bit of a pain but can be done by either asking your doctor or trying this method here. I have an Apple Watch which tracks VO2 Max as a metric but found the readings to be lackluster. To be fair, Apple does say it’s “just an estimate” and you’re better off testing for it.
Why Your VO2 Max Matters
I’ve spent a lot of time the last few months listening to Dr. Attia and others talk ad nauseam about VO2 Max.
All of it boils down to 3 key points:
1. An “Elite” VO2 Max is best, but anything is better than “Low”
The graph below tells the story.
On the horizontal axis, you’ve got time (showing a decade’s worth). On the vertical axis is survival probability.
The data comes from a study in which a massive group of 122,000 patients, with an average age of 53 years old, were run through a VO2 Max test and ranked into performance groups:
Low — people who scored in the bottom 25th percentile
Below average — people in the 25 to 50th percentile
Above average — people in the 50 to 75th percentile
High — people in the 75 to ~95th percentile
Elite — the top 5%
There were about 30,000 participants in each one of the low, below average, above average, and high groups, but just 3,500 or so that scored in the elite group.
One thing in particular should jump out at you — there’s a big ass gap between the low performance group and literally every other group. This means that your survival probability is much lower if you’re at the bottom of the barrel in that low performance group (the bottom 25%).
Long story short, you want the highest VO2 Max you can attain. But whatever you do, don’t get stuck in the low performance group.
Here’s a handy chart to give you an idea what to shoot for:
2. Your risk of death from all causes goes WAY down when you have a higher VO2 Max
Now that we know a higher VO2 Max is good, just how good is it?
For this, we look at the data below:
If you’re not a graph/data nerd like me, here are Peter Attia's key takeaways:
The curve in the upper left shows ‘Adjusted Hazard Ratio‘.’ Increasing your VO2 Max from low to below average leads to a 50% reduction in all-cause mortality over a 10-year span.
Increasing VO2 Max from low to above average yields a 60–70% reduction in mortality, and continues to decline as you near the elite group.
Even though the smallest improvement is from high to elite, it’s still a statistically significant difference.
If you look at Table C in the bottom left, the comparison between a low vs elite VO2 Max is a five-fold difference in mortality over 10 years.
The summary? Improving your fitness drastically reduces your risk of death, thus extending both your life and health span.
3. Outside of your workouts, life is just plain easier with a higher VO2 Max
Alright, we’re done with the graphs — I promise.
Now that you’ve seen the data, let me hit you with a qualitative benefit instead of a quantitative one. With a higher VO2 Max and a greater level of cardiorespiratory fitness, you’ll have an easier time doing just about anything physical.
You will be able to move faster, farther, and for longer periods of time than someone with a low VO2 Max. Need to sling a giant bag of dog food over your back and carry it 50 meters? No problem! You’ll also be able to recover faster. Plus, you’ll feel immensely better all-around.
Trust me, raising your VO2 Max isn’t a walk in the park. But the mental and physical strength you’ll build on the way up will positively impact your life in an almost-infinite number of ways.
After all, the goal isn’t just to live longer — it’s to live longer while maintaining quality of life.
How to Improve Your VO2 Max
Toward the beginning of 2023, I changed my workout routine to focus specifically on improving my VO2 Max.
I went from lifting 4 to 5 days per week down to 3, and I incorporated 4 dedicated days of cardio (which was totally new to me).
The way I built my program was based on information from Peter Attia (for VO2 Max) and Andrew Huberman (to maintain strength). Let’s ignore the strength part and focus solely on VO2 Max (the cardio).
Peter says the best way to think about increasing your VO2 Max is like building a pyramid. VO2 Max is at the top, Zone 2 Cardio is the foundation and the width of your pyramid, and High Intensity training is how to make your pyramid taller.
The key to effectively building a high VO2 Max is to spend about 80% of your cardio training time in Zone 2, and the other 20% doing higher-intensity workouts.
This will give you the optimal balance of a high VO2 Max with a wide, stable base of Zone 2 Cardio to stand on.
Zone 2 training
This is your bread and butter. You want to build a strong foundation of cardiorespiratory fitness, which is where the Zone 2 training comes in.
Zone 2 training typically means longer, lower-intensity workouts. If you’re a runner, we call these LSD, or “Long, Slow Distance”.
Fortunately, Zone 2 training is not super complicated. You’re said to be in the Zone 2 range when you are at about 61 to 70% of your maximum heart rate.
If you have an Apple Watch, it tells you when you’re in Zone 2. But I’ve found the best indicator is to just feel it out. You know you’re in the right zone when you start to feel like you’re getting a good workout in. You can still maintain a conversation but don’t really want to.
Ideally, you shoot for 180–220 minutes of Zone 2 cardio each week. Here’s my breakdown:
Sunday: 60–70 minutes of running
Tuesday: 30–40 minutes of running
Thursday: 30–40 minutes of running
M/W/Sa: 10–15 minutes of running after lifting (as needed to hit my target)
Most weeks I hit my 180-minute target. Some weeks I’m over. And some I’m a little under, but I don’t stress it too much.
In my program, I’ve dedicated one day a week (I chose Friday) for my High Intensity training.
Peter Attia says that for these workouts, you want to do the “work” in intervals that are in the 3 to 8-minute range. That’s 3 minutes at the low end (if you’re a beginner) and 8 minutes at the high end (for the seasoned vets).
During those 3 to 8 minutes, you want to be doing something that is so hard that you can only do it for however long you’ve chosen, leaving just a little bit left in the tank for multiple rounds.
Honestly, 8 minutes is insane. Being totally new to cardio again, I started at the 3-minute mark with a 3x3x4 workout:
3 minutes of hard work (running)
3 minutes of rest (walking)
Repeat 4 times
The whole thing takes about 20 minutes and I am SPENT when it’s done. I won’t lie, it kind of sucks. But damn you feel so good after.
If you’ve never heard of VO2 Max before, now you have.
You get some weird looks from your friends and family if you tell them your new goal is to improve your VO2 Max, so maybe just stick with "getting in the best shape of your life".
I almost feel kind of bad telling you about all this because now that you know, it’s much harder to ignore. I mean, 50% reduction in all-cause mortality over the next 10 years just by improving from low to below average?
For me, the long-term goal is elite, but in the short-term I’m just happy not to be in the low range. I’ll keep y’all posted on my progress at the end of the year and beyond.
Resources and further reading: